Trump in the UK: The President and May Strive for Unity

Right now: “I didn’t criticize the prime minister”: President Trump affirmed his support for Theresa May after questioning her Brexit plan.

The tension and uncertainty surrounding President Trump’s trip to Britain reached new heights after the publication Thursday night of a bombshell interview in which he said Prime Minister Theresa May was taking the wrong approach to Brexit, praised her political rival and former foreign secretary, and renewed his feud with the mayor of London. But the two leaders sought to reassert their “special relationship” on Friday.

The president has never shown much affection for diplomatic norms and multilateral institutions, and that was on full display earlier Thursday at the NATO summit meeting in Brussels, where he forced an emergency budget meeting after castigating other members over their military spending.

Here’s the latest:

• Mr. Trump sat down for talks with Mrs. May, and the two held a news conference in which they tried to restore a sense of unity after a devastating interview with the British tabloid The Sun. Tea with the queen will come later.

Mrs. May has worked to maintain cordial relations with Mr. Trump, mindful of her country’s desire to strike a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States, but he told The Sun that her current approach “would probably end a major trade relationship with the United States.”

• Mr. Trump said at an earlier news conference that “they like me a lot in the U.K.,” but he was greeted with protests on Thursday that continued into Friday, including a giant balloon depicting him as a snarling baby in a diaper. He is largely avoiding London, telling The Sun, “When they make you feel unwelcome, why would I stay there.”

• The NATO meeting ended with Mr. Trump reaffirming his support for the alliance, but only after a confrontation in which he said leaders had agreed to increase spending — a claim that at least two European leaders disputed.

• The New York Times has live coverage of his seven-day, three-nation trip, from our White House reporters and European correspondents. Photographs from Mr. Trump’s weeklong trip are here.

May keeps to role of host after her guest’s provocations

Prime Minister Theresa May and President Trump worked on Friday to repair the damage after she was left with a deepening political crisis and a diplomatic embarrassment by a bombshell interview with The Sun that was published on Thursday.

At a news conference at her country estate, Chequers, Mrs. May accentuated the positive, saying “no two countries do more together than ours to keep their people safe and prosperous,” and gave no hint of anger about the interview that seriously undermined her.

With the “special relationship” thrown into doubt by the interview, Mr. Trump said that ties between the two were at the “highest level of special” and said “this incredible woman right here is doing a fantastic job.”

Those comments were sharply at odds with his views expressed in his interview with The Sun, in which Mr. Trump castigated Mrs. May for her approach to the British withdrawal from the European Union and warned that it could jeopardize a much-sought trade deal for Britain, but on Friday he expressed the opposite view.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do,” Mr. Trump said, “but whatever you do is O.K. with me, that’s their decision.” He later remarked that it was a “tough decision,” but emphasized that he wanted a fair deal on trade, complaining that the European Union treats the United States “horribly” and complaining that there are “barriers that are beyond belief.”

And, for her part, Mrs. May, whose grip on power has been called into question as she tries to determine the course of her country’s departure from the European Union, used the occasion to defend her approach.

“This does deliver on the vote of the British people. The British people voted to leave the European Union,” she said. “As we leave the European Union we will be delivering what people voted on: an end to free movement, an end to sending vast amounts of money to the European Union, an end to jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.”

Mr. Trump also complained that the interview with The Sun failed to properly capture the full nature of his views of Brexit and the prime minister. “I didn’t criticize the prime minister,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for the prime minister. Unfortunately, there was a story that was done which was generally fine but it didn‘t put in what I said about the prime minister.”

Mr. Trump caused turmoil at a NATO summit meeting a day earlier, complaining about the military spending commitments of alliance members, and he specifically cited Mrs. May’s support in that area on Friday.

“The prime minister was right there with me,” he said.

Mr. Trump will head to Helsinki, Finland, on Monday for meetings with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and he said he would raise the question of election meddling, but he also seemed to suggest that there would be little to learn.

“I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee I did it, I did it, you got me.’ I don’t think you’ll have any Perry Mason here,” he said, referring to a fictional lawyer on an American television show. “But I absolutely will ask the question.”

An independent counsel in the United States has been looking into whether Trump associates aided Russia’s election interference, and the question of whether Mr. Trump has been tough enough on Moscow has been a delicate one.

“I guarantee you, whoever it is in Russia,” he said, “I guarantee they’re saying ‘Oh gee we wish Trump was not the victor in that election.’ ”

Pointing to the response after Britain expelled Russian diplomats after the poisoning of a former Soviet spy and his daughter in Russia, he said that Germany had kicked out only three Russian diplomats, and that the United States ordered the removal of 60.

Interview put May and Britain in a difficult spot

Mrs. May is hoping to lay a groundwork for a trade deal with the United States, as she tries to negotiate Britain’s departure from the European Union.

But in his interview with The Sun, published Thursday night, Mr. Trump said that if the prime minister persisted in seeking a so-called soft exit from the European Union, sticking close to its rules on goods, she could forget about a separate pact with the United States.

“If they do that,” the paper quoted him as saying, “then their trade deal with the U.S. will probably not be made.”

Hours before the interview was published, Mr. Trump was asked about Brexit at a news conference and said, “It’s not for me to say about the U.K.”

But speaking to The Sun, he described the prime minister’s approach to Brexit as “very unfortunate,” and said, “I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t listen to me.”

He had much warmer words for Boris Johnson, the ambitious British politician who just quit as foreign minister in an open break with Mrs. May, and is seen as one of her primary rivals within the Conservative Party. Mr. Johnson, he said, would “make a great prime minister.”

For the president to criticize and politically undercut one of his closest international allies, on her home turf, is an extraordinary breach of protocol, but if anything seems clear at this point, it is that there is no reason to expect the expected.

The two leaders posed for photographs after Mr. Trump arrived at Chequers on Friday morning — he in a blue suit, Mrs. May in a red jacket and dark trousers — and answered a few questions before going behind closed doors. But he didn’t answer one question: Asked whether he regretted his comments, Mr. Trump rolled his eyes and shook his head.

“We had a dinner where I think we’ve never had a better relationship,” Mr. Trump said, adding that he and Mrs. May had spoken for an hour and a half on Thursday, discussing trade, defense and counterterrorism.

Perfectly reasonable, or ‘wholly outrageous’? The response in Britain

On Friday, Mrs. May’s hard-line opponents used Mr. Trump’s comments to bolster their argument that the government’s plans for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, or Brexit, should be torn up in favor of a cleaner break with the bloc.

Speaking to the BBC, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative lawmaker and one of Mrs. May’s pro-Brexit critics, argued that Mr. Trump had been “perfectly reasonable,” simply reflecting the reality of the government’s proposals.

The President is absolutely right.

Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage)
July 12, 2018

Alan Duncan, a minister of state at the Foreign Office, suggested that Mr. Trump had spoken to The Sun before reading the details of Mrs. May’s latest Brexit plan, which aims to keep some close economic ties to the European Union.

But Simon Fraser, formerly one of Britain’s most senior diplomats, described the president’s “patronizing put-down” of Mrs. May as “wholly outrageous.”

“Normally I don’t feel sorry for Theresa May,” Emily Thornberry, a foreign affairs spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party, told Sky News. “I don’t think that feeling sorry for a prime minister is a very good look, but this morning I feel sorry for her.”

The Trump-Khan feud doubles down

Mr. Trump breathed new life into his long-distance, long-running feud with the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, with his harsh comments on the city and its leader, and the mayor struck back on Friday.

“Take a look at the terrorism that’s taking place,” Mr. Trump told The Sun. “Look at what’s going on in London. I think he’s done a terrible job.” He added, “I think he’s done a bad job on crime.”

Speaking to BBC Radio on Friday, Mr. Khan said he thought it “interesting that President Trump is not criticizing the mayors of other cities” that have experienced terrorist attacks.

That appeared to be a reference to Mr. Khan’s faith — he is among few Muslims serving as mayor of a major Western city, and Mr. Trump has sought to restrict travel to the United States from people from predominantly Muslim countries.

London has been struggling with an increase in knife crime, but Mr. Khan said that to blame immigration for the increase was “preposterous.”

Mr. Khan also defended his decision to allow a balloon depicting Mr. Trump as an angry, orange baby to float over Westminister. “Can you imagine if we limited freedom of speech because someone might get hurt?” he told the BBC. As mayor, he said, he “should not be the arbiter of what is in good taste or bad taste.”

In Windsor, a sharp contrast to that last big American visit

A famous American visited Windsor for an event at the castle with the royal family, and got a rapturous welcome from hordes of people proclaiming British-American unity.

That was two months ago. The American was Meghan Markle, not President Trump.

In May, the High Street in Windsor was packed with royal wedding memorabilia and ecstatic fans of Ms. Markle and Prince Harry, many of them waving American flags. For Mr. Trump’s visit to Windsor on Friday, when he will have tea with the queen, the American flags are nowhere to be seen and the streets are quiet.

“Everyone was really excited during the royal wedding — Windsor welcomed visitors with open arms,” said Luisa Lee, 39, a commercial director who lives locally. “But now people think ‘He’s here, so what?’”

Apart from heavy security and some protesters, there were few signs that anything unusual was happening in Windsor. Outside a memorabilia store across the street from Windsor Castle, a party mask with a gloomy caricature of Mr. Trump stared down an image of the beaming royal newlyweds, now styled the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

“From a business point of view, they’ve closed the road, so we’re going to suffer,” said Kesavan Muthu, 50, a sales clerk at the store. “I’m a bit scared, looking at the security arrangement, I’m thinking, are they expecting something big to happen?”

Not all of the locals were indifferent or disapproving about the president’s visit.

“I think it’s great that he comes here — I think he’s one of the good guys,” said Andy Brown, 50, who works in maintenance. “He’s brilliant, he says what he wants and I’ll raise a glass for him.”

— Iliana Magra

The snarling baby takes flight

The most anticipated element of Britain’s “Stop Trump” protests, a giant orange balloon of President Trump depicted as a pouting baby in a diaper and carrying a smartphone, took off Friday morning from Parliament Square in London and came back to earth a couple of hours later.

Though the actual protest was hours away, dozens gathered for the takeoff, including activists, tourists, children and bystanders diverted from their commutes. They gathered around the balloon and, as if it were a rocket launch, counted down from 10 before setting it into motion.

“This is a victory,” said Leo Murray, an activist and the creator of the balloon. “People love it, he hates it and it’s driven him out of London.”

Anti-Trump protests have been organized for every stop of the president’s trip in Britain. More than 200 demonstrators gathered outside of Chequers, including two wearing giant papier-mâché heads with unflattering likenesses of the president and the prime minister.

Mr. Murray and others behind the inflatable “Trump Baby” have called the balloon a “symbol of resistance” aimed at giving Mr. Trump a clear message that he is not welcome in Britain.

“The only way to get through to him is to get down to his level and talk in a language he understands, one of personal insults,” Mr. Murray said.

Tens of thousands of protesters are expected for a 2 p.m. demonstration against Mr. Trump’s policies.

Adam Cottrell, one of the protest organizers, said, “He mocks and insults anyone who doesn’t support him so now he can see what it feels like.”

But Lucy Lawson, an American who came to see the balloon because it was close to her work, said that while she opposed Mr. Trump’s policies, she considered the protest childish.

“Why are people going down to his level?” she asked. “Why are they being so childish? It’s because of his childlike leadership that we are in this mess.”

Ms. Lawson asked one of the organizers why they still decided to launch the balloon, knowing that Mr. Trump would not be in London.

“It’s going to swamp his Twitter feed,” Mr. Cottrell said. “There’s no way he doesn’t see this.”

Obama weighed in on British politics, too, if a bit more gently

Mr. Trump is not the first American president to wade publicly into another country’s politics. In fact, he is not even the first to step into Britain’s.

In London in 2016, President Barack Obama called on Britons to reject the referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union.

An unwritten rule of international diplomacy states that the leader of one country should not try to influence the internal politics of another. The rule is broken often, but usually with an element of deniability — not out in the open.

Mr. Obama intervened with a different tone than Mr. Trump did. Mr. Obama even acknowledged that he might be crossing a line, explaining at a news conference with David Cameron, then the prime minister, why he had “the temerity to weigh in.”

Ben Rhodes, a former Obama aide, wrote in his recent book, “The World As It Is,” that Mr. Cameron, who opposed Brexit, had asked Mr. Obama to make a statement against withdrawing from the bloc.

Mr. Obama stood beside Mr. Cameron, who opposed Brexit, and tried to help him politically. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has undercut Mrs. May.

Some pro-Brexit politicians castigated Mr. Obama for trying to sway the vote, but it is not clear what difference it made, if any. The referendum succeeded, with 52 percent of the vote.

And Mr. Obama was more popular in Britain than Mr. Trump is.

The Sun finds itself at the center of the journalism universe

The front page of The Sun on Friday.

British newspapers, especially the tabloids, know a good story when they see one, and the release of President Trump’s interview with The Sun dominated the front pages. A sampling of the headlines:

The Sun, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., proclaimed under a banner trumpeting the interview, “May has wrecked Brexit … deal is off!”

The Times of London, which is also owned by News Corp. but generally takes a more restrained approach, said, “Trump: May’s soft Brexit will kill chance of US trade deal.”

The Daily Mail described it as the “President’s Brexit Attack on May,” while another tabloid, the Daily Mirror, took a briefer approach that nonetheless managed to make its point: “Donald Thump.”

The Guardian has compiled a roundup of the British front pages.

Wrapping up the trip: One on one with Putin

Mr. Trump’s first summit meeting with the Russian president will be parsed for countless layers of meaning.

The West’s stance toward Russia is, as always, a central topic at the NATO meeting, and the United States’ European allies are worried that Mr. Trump aims to reduce the American security role in dealing with Moscow.

Russia is waging a proxy war against Ukraine, has forcibly annexed part of that country, has meddled in other nations’ elections, gives crucial support to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and stands accused of using a chemical weapon on British soil.

Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign is under investigation for links to Russia, and Mr. Trump, who is quick to aim a barb at almost anyone else, has been reluctant to criticize Mr. Putin. Yet he and his aides bristle at accusations that he is not tough enough with the Kremlin.

The meeting with Mr. Putin will be closely analyzed for signs that Mr. Trump is friendlier to his Russian counterpart than to the leaders he is meeting in Brussels.

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